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White House and Federal Government Make Important Progress in Battle Against Derogatory Language

October 07, 2010

For Immediate Release

President Obama signs “Rosa’s Law,” legislation replacing “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” throughout federal policy

Special Olympics athletes invited to the White House to celebrate law’s enactment

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Special Olympics Chairman and CEO Dr. Timothy P. Shriver will accompany 10 Special Olympics athletes and advocates to the White House at the request of President Obama to commemorate the enactment of S.2781, “Rosa’s Law,” this Friday, October 8. Earlier this week, the President signed S.2781 into law--replacing the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" within federal health, education and labor policy with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.” This is an important step in the quest to end the deprecating use of the “R-word” as a casual insult and schoolyard taunt. 

Rosa’s Law was championed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) after meeting Rosa Marcellino and her family from Edgewater, Maryland. Rosa, born with Down syndrome, inspired the senator to take up the fight after being derogatorily labeled a “retard” by her classmates in 2009.

“On behalf of all of us at Special Olympics, we’d like to congratulate Senator Mikulski for her tireless work in driving this important legislation, as well as the members of the House, Senate, and President Obama for their unanimous support in passing ‘Rosa’s Law,’” said Shriver. “As we celebrate this milestone, it’s important to understand there is still much work to be done in the continuing battle against offensive language and in changing the attitudes of the general public toward people with intellectual disabilities.”

Special Olympics championed the use of “people first language” by changing its own terminology from “mental retardation” to “people with intellectual disabilities” in 2004--after a call to action from its athletes to the movement’s leadership. In 2008, Special Olympics launched where the public can pledge to stop using the R-word in a derogatory manner and promote the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Youth leaders at the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho began the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign as a grassroots, youth-led movement in schools and communities across the United States and around the world to raise awareness of the hurtful nature of the word “retard(ed)” and to promote the positive impact people with intellectual disabilities can and do make in every community.

“Although originally clinical terms introduced with good intentions, ‘mental retardation’ and ‘retard’ are used in everyday speech to degrade people with intellectual disabilities in movies, on TV, online, in the classroom and beyond. The R-word is an outdated reference that must be recognized for its hurtful impact on this population and universally changed to positive language echoing inclusion and acceptance. While the federal government is taking steps to change how our country refers to people with intellectual disabilities, all of us are challenged on a personal level to make changes in our own backyards by examining—and ultimately changing—perceptions in our schools and communities.”” said Soeren Palumbo, Co-founder of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.

In independent research conducted in 2009 by the University of Massachusetts through a Harris Interactive survey about attitudes among youth on the R-word, it was found that:

• 92% of young Americans (ages 8-18) report having heard the R-word used, while 36% have heard the word used specifically toward someone with an intellectual disability.

• Only 50% of those who heard it used to refer to someone with an intellectual disability told the person who used the word that it was wrong to do so.

• The study also confirmed that as young people progress from elementary school, to middle school and then on to high school, they are less likely to feel bad or sorry for the person being picked on, and more likely to laugh, do nothing, and/or not care.

Those attending Friday’s White House event will include (see full bios):

Dr. Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics Chairman and CEO
Loretta Claiborne, Self-Advocate and Special Olympics International Board Director
Eddie Barbanell, Self-Advocate, Actor and Special Olympics International Board Director
Soeren Palumbo, Co-founder, “Spread the Word to End the Word” Campaign, Co-founder SO College
Tim Shriver, Co-founder, “Spread the Word to End the Word” Campaign, Co-founder SO College
Erica Wheeler, Self-Advocate, Special Olympics Maryland Board Director and Athlete
Danielle Liebl, Self-Advocate, Special Olympics Minnesota Athlete, Youth Activation Committee Member
Roberta Blomster, Self-Advocate, Special Olympics Minnesota Athlete and Global Messenger
Frank Stephens, Self-Advocate and Special Olympics Virginia Athlete
David Egan, Self-Advocate, Special Olympics Virginia Board Director and Athlete
Julie Petty, Self-Advocate from Fayetteville, Arkansas


CONTACT: Mandy Murphy, Special Olympics,             202.824.0227;

Read Senator Mikulski’s Press Release

Read Timothy Shriver’s thoughts on Rosa’s Law

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